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The Washington Nationals’ ceiling

I’ve spent plenty of time — probably too much — criticizing the state of the organization. Let’s shift gears...

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve read any of my work at this site recently, then you have probably rightfully labeled me a pessimist (although I, like many others labeled pessimist, prefer the term realist). Call it an evolutionary trait, a way to ensure the burden of disappointment isn’t felt too heavily because I already expected it. Call it a gimmick, as in, the guy who’s always lamenting the state of an organization which has recently won a World Series. Call it habit, as I tend to focus on what could wrong in sports; there seems to be more content there.

But, to our optimistic and neutral readers, it’s likely repetitive, sometimes annoying, and assuredly frustrating. After all, we all see the Washington Nationals attempting to make moves to remain competitive in the division and the league as a whole. They’ve got a good roster; I’ve only questioned whether or not they have a good enough roster. I’m sure there will be a time in the future where I come back to that question, but today is not that day.

Because, as I mentioned in my last article, players like Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and now Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell are all on the same team. To me, that’s a pretty formidable roster and, in a different year, I probably wouldn’t give it such a hard time. Unfortunately, this isn’t a different year. With all that said, here’s my attempt at optimism: I will diligently try to chart a path which yields the organization reaching its 2021 ceiling.

The ceiling, presumably, is another World Series, particularly given the roster configuration and its amalgamation of talented players. But I want to try to be as realistic as possible, which means considering past critiques and applying them to this article while still trying to reach a conclusion about how far this team can go. In this thought experiment, it might be worth it to first determine a floor.

Coming off the shortened 2020 season in which the Nationals finished tied for fourth place in the division might be a good place to start. But it doesn’t feel quite right. As it turns out, Washington will very likely be better this year than it was last year, if for no other reason than because last year was stymied by underachievement, something I don’t think will happen for a second consecutive season. But, besides that, the roster is also better, in my opinion. While there have been some departures of recent staples, the additions of Schwarber and Bell – and likely another player or two in the future – should more than make up for any losses.

Furthermore, while the Miami Marlins surprised everyone last season, that team could look very different over the course of a full year; I am of the belief that, in the end, the Nationals’ veteran presence could be enough to push them over the edge and eclipse other teams’ outputs. Let’s, then, assume that Miami finishes fifth and establish the Nationals’ floor as a fourth place team in the division. In that scenario, let’s say they finish 79-83. Not great and certainly a disappointment. I doubt they’ll sink to this depth.

Now, let’s figure out that ceiling. I want to note that when I talk about each player reaching their ceiling, I don’t mean their career ceiling; I mean their 2021 ceiling. There’s no reason to expect Strasburg or Scherzer to come in and post the best numbers we’ve ever seen from them, but that ceiling could be in line with what we’ve seen in the aggregate throughout their careers.

Here’s the deal. We know how good Soto is. He’s a generational player. At this point in his career, FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski states that there are “14 players in major league history with a wRC+ of at least 130 in at least a thousand plate appearances before their age 22 season,” of which one is Soto. Szymborski goes on to determine Soto’s closest player comp: Ted Williams. High praise. Soto’s going to have a good year, regardless – and he’s going to have a good time doing it. He’s also a player that the Nationals are going to want to sign long term, regardless of organizational plans.

Last year, Turner was one of the best hitters in baseball, but got snubbed from the All-MLB team. Dodger shortstop Corey Seager beat him out for a spot on the second team, despite virtually all of Turner’s relevant numbers being higher. Whether or not Turner will be a top-3 or 4 hitting shortstop in 2021 isn’t entirely relevant. He’ll have a good year piggybacking off the shortened 2020 campaign.

As for the newcomers, Bell and Schwarber, if their combined production can produce close to 6 fWAR, I think the front office will be ecstatic. Bell’s highest output came in 2019 when he had 2.5. The only reason it wasn’t higher was because of his terrible defense. I’ve heard nothing definitive about whether or not the NL will use the DH, but if they do, then Bell’s WAR output could exceed that 2019 figure.

As for Schwarber, his highest total came in 2018 when he logged 3.2 fWAR. That year he hit 26 home runs and had a wRC+ of 115. If this tandem can generate close to 3 fWAR each, then the Nationals will have been successful with these pickups. I would watch for them both to get closer to around the neighborhood of 2 WAR each (Bell was -0.4 a year ago, while Schwarber was 0.4).

As for the pitchers, Scherzer has been elite for the majority of his time in Washington. Last season – a down year for Mad Max – resulted in a 3.46 FIP and 82 ERA-. He’s shown hardly any significant signs of regression, which I intimated would be the case prior to the 2020 campaign. Heading into a season in which he’ll turn 37 halfway through, the falling off of Scherzer shouldn’t be projected to happen this year.

Thanks to injury, Strasburg only started two games and wasn’t sterling. There’s no reason to hold that against him, however. The lifelong Nat will turn 33 this year but could easily match his 2019 outputs (3.25 FIP, 5.7 fWAR, 74 ERA-).

Now, for the wild card: Carter Kieboom. He hasn’t gotten a ton of looks at the major league level, playing in only 44 games, so it’s hard to reach hard and fast conclusions about his play through statistics. We’ll need a larger body of work to do that. He’s posted negative fWAR outputs over 2019 and 2020, but in his age 23 season, we’ll have to wait and see whether or not he can touch the potential we’ve heard about as he came up through the system. Getting everyday reps at third base could go a long way to helping him reach his 2021 ceiling.

If the Nationals are to reach their ceiling, then I’m of the belief that the star players will have to reach their output levels over the last couple years. While not everybody needs to have career years, it would certainly help the cause. Add in a couple more free agents and Washington will have a chance at the division, if not a sustained playoff run. Still, arriving at the World Series would be a tall task. In keeping with my new optimistic mindset, I’ll grant the Nationals ceiling to be arriving at the National league Championship Series.

To advance any further, it might take some help from others in the NL not reaching their potential. Every team controls its destiny to an extent and, if the Nationals play the way they can this season, it’s perfectly within the realm of possibility to reach the NLCS. And, I suppose, if you can make it that far, then you can make it all the way. I’m reluctant to grant this team a World Series berth in this thought experiment, but I see no reason why they can’t be the runner-up in the National League.